As we embark on a week of shutdown/debt ceiling negotiations, it is helpful to read Paul Kane’s roadmap in the Washington Post. He has Harry Reid passing the Senate’s version of the Continuing Resolution around dinner time on Sunday the 29th, barely more than 24 hours before the government runs out of money. This might seem like a strategic choice to put the screws to the House Republicans, but it’s mainly driven by the rules of the Senate. About the only thing the Senate Republicans could do to give their House colleagues more time is to wave the 30-hour post-cloture debate on the motion to proceed to the bill. If they did that, Reid could potentially hold the vote on final passage as soon as Friday. But he could still wait until the last moment if that is what he wanted to do.

Another piece in the Post, by Ed O’Keefe, looks at the key congressional players whose actions will determine how this unfolds. What stands out is the lack of certainty that John Boehner can win a majority from his own caucus for any course of action.

Mr. Kane reports that Boehner may try to deal with the debt ceiling part of the problem with a vote on Friday:

The House could pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling. An initial draft of the legislation contains something for everyone in the Republican Conference: It increases the debt limit until the end of 2014, delays Obamacare for a year and includes a grab bag of conservative goals, such as offshore drilling, Medicare means testing, a tax code overhaul and approval of the Keystone pipeline. The bill is designed to gain the necessary bare majority with GOP votes alone. But there’s no guarantee of that, because a significant number of House Republicans don’t believe in raising the debt limit under any circumstances.

I think the idea here is that, if the House passes an ObamaCare delay as part of a debt ceiling extension on Friday, they will be more amenable to passing a “clean” continuing resolution on Monday. Boehner will argue to his caucus that he needs their support or he will be forced to ask Nancy Pelosi for help, and Pelosi may have some demands that the Republicans will not like.

Pelosi suggested Sunday that she’d like to once again be House speaker and she knows that Boehner may once again need her and Democrats to help him quickly pass legislation that most Republicans don’t like. Before she agrees to do so, she may force the speaker to give Democrats something they want. What that is remains to be seen.

Boehner wants to avoid having to make a deal with Pelosi, but that doesn’t mean that he will succeed in convincing enough Republicans to agree to his strategy. If he fails to pass a debt ceiling extension on Friday, he will face the choice of passing the Senate’s bill with whatever conditions Pelosi demands, or just letting the government shut down.

That sounds pretty bleak, but it’s actually worse than that because even if he succeeds in extending the debt ceiling on Friday, and he gets his caucus to pass a clean CR without Democratic help on Monday, the Senate will never agree to the conditions he’s putting in the debt ceiling bill. By putting “offshore drilling, Medicare means testing, a tax code overhaul and approval of the Keystone pipeline” into the debt ceiling bill, he will assure that it goes nowhere.

And, because his strategy depends heavily on the idea that he can use the leverage from the administration’s fear of a default to get a win on ObamaCare, it actually does matter that he has no prayer of extracting all these concessions from either the Senate or the president. The more the House Republicans understand this, the less likely they are to go along with his strategy. And even if they do go along with his strategy, he is still going to have to find a way to raise the debt ceiling in a way that the Democrats can support. It seems that, one way or the other, Boehner is eventually going to have to go hat in hand to Pelosi.

And that will raise interesting questions about Boehner’s ongoing viability as Speaker of the House. We don’t have a parliamentary system but, if we did, Boehner going to Pelosi would be the equivalent of a reshuffling of the majority coalition. In order to survive, Boehner might need Democratic votes, which would make him the head not of the Republican Party in the House, but of an ad hoc bipartisan coalition. Would he be willing to do that and govern like that?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at